Chef Claudette Zepeda: It's 'Demoralizing' Having To Justify The Value Of Mexican Food

The chef clears up a popular misconception about Mexican cuisine and shares advice for other single moms breaking into the restaurant industry.

“I don’t ever use the words ‘traditional’ or ‘authentic’ when it comes to cuisine, because ‘authentic’ is very personal … it’s authentically YOU, and traditions aren’t static,” said chef Claudette Zepeda, a James Beard Best Chef West semifinalist and former competitor on “Top Chef” and “Top Chef Mexico.” Long before she was a renowned chef, Zepeda grew up in the international border region between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, California, developing her palate with those local flavors. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she made weekly trips to the market in Tijuana and regularly traveled throughout Mexico 12 to 16 times per year to gain culinary inspiration. Most recently known for her time as executive chef and partner behind the now-closed El Jardín, a regional Mexican restaurant in San Diego, Zepeda is now preparing for her next stint as executive chef at Hyatt’s Alila Marea Beach Resort, opening in early 2021. Here, in the latest installment of HuffPost’s Voices In Food, she discusses her experience growing up as a “border kid,” clears up a popular misconception about Mexican cuisine and provides advice to other single moms who hope to break into the industry.

On COVID-19’s lasting impact on the restaurant industry

On the heels of the James Beard Foundation saying they’re not going to announce the remaining 2020 winners and that next year’s format changed to remove systemic biases, I think it’s a really big reflective moment for individuals and the industry as a whole. Instead of chasing awards or accolades, chefs will cook what they really want to cook, and then all of a sudden, the accolades and awards start coming in organically.

Labor is an issue since we’re [not being properly supported by] the Paycheck Protection Program and nothing was put in place for a small business to succeed. At the end of the day, when a pandemic happens, it’s just you and your crew. I think we’re at this turning point as a creative industry to just simplify. Simplify, I think, is the word of the year. Time to cut the fat and focus on what’s important and what’s real — less is more.

I’m one year post-closing El Jardín, and I went through all of the emotions of closing a restaurant and losing your dream, and I feel like that’s where everyone’s at right now, facing the point of “I can’t stay open.” I think as an industry, we have to go back to the basics, like burger joints. Almost like post-Depression food.

On growing up as a “border kid”

I’m a daughter of two immigrants. My father immigrated from Jalisco to the U.S. out of high school, and was living and working in Los Angeles, where he developed this very gourmand palate. He had been in the states for years before he met my mom, who was born in Tijuana. She had two boys, and my dad had two boys, so the environment in my house was always very chaotic — but always centered in food. At home in Tijuana, my mom would make some of the dishes that my dad had eaten during his time in LA, so I was introduced to a lot of flavors. And then we would go out to eat at home in Tijuana, which is the city of immigrants ― you eat so well in Tijuana.

Kids would drive from our home in Tijuana to San Diego every day for school. And when we crossed the border to the U.S., I felt like a foreigner. In our home, it was considered disrespectful to speak English, which is contradictory for most Chicano children who are taught to blend in and only speak English. We were bullied for being different, and what we ate at home was different. The first time I had meatloaf was a revelation, like, “you don’t eat rice, beans, tortillas and meat for every meal?” I started seeing that cultural difference. But when I became a teenager, it was, “Let’s ditch sixth period and go to Tijuana.” It was just so easy then … it was a speed bump, a five-minute drive.

When we would visit my mom’s brother in Tijuana, he had an outhouse ― it was like constantly being pushed back and forth between feast and famine. In the states, I would see all these teenagers with really expensive clothes, and then I go to my uncle’s house and we’re taking him hand-me-downs so he can just have clothes. It really molded me into a very specific kind of empathetic human. To this day, when I visit my aunt or go to Mexico to see women who inspired me when I was building El Jardín, they are sleeping on dirt floors, and it warms my heart. They’re just so grateful for what they have, and to them, we’re the poor ones — they feel bad for us that we’re constantly chasing something. I think being a border kid served me well on never taking anything for granted. I’m not attached to anything materialistic.

On the misconception that Mexican cuisine should be cheap

There’s no [Mexican] fast food … we don’t do fast food. You can throw tortillas on the stove once you have masa, but the masa takes 2 1/2 days, and the tamales take two days. Everything is a labor of love when we cook, down to just enfrijoladas, which is mashed beans and tortillas with cream and cheese — you put so much love in those beans. Some will say, “Oh, it’s just cooked beans.” No, it’s cooked beans with epazote, hoja santa and chiles, and they’re cooked until they’re super tender. All I can do is share the story and explain to people the elaborate path that dish takes.

“It’s really demoralizing to have to tell people every day that we’re worthy of what we want to charge.”

But it’s up to the person to be open-minded enough to want to hear it. At El Jardín, some guests would say, “Oh my God, I had no idea … that’s amazing.” And sometimes it was, “I don’t give a shit, that’s too expensive. You’re ridiculous. Who do you think you are?” How I combat this [type of thinking] is by being very, very educated and full of knowledge on my cuisine and on the history of it, and tell the story. It’s really demoralizing to have to tell people every day that we’re worthy of what we want to charge. It makes you feel like you’re not human in a way, like we’re lesser than.

Her advice for other single moms trying to break into the industry

It takes a small army. I can’t say I did it alone. There’s no way I could have done what I have in my career without really loving family members. My kids got some serious quality time with their grandmothers, and I was able to work. Most of the time, I worked two to three jobs. I’ve done it all to keep the lights on, so to speak.

When I had to leave culinary school after two semesters because it was too expensive, I decided to just find mentors in the industry. I was fortunate enough to work with chef Gavin Kaysen in San Diego, and he gave me the best advice that I’ve ever heard. I was bitching about somebody that I worked with, and he stopped me in my tracks and said, “Last time I checked, she doesn’t pay your bills, so why don’t you focus on what you’re trying to do and learn, and stop focusing on others.”

As young cooks, all we’re doing is seeing what the day shift didn’t do and trying to rat them out. But you don’t have to talk down about other people to be successful. Just put your head down and work your ass off, and knock on doors that you didn’t think would open for you. If you can do it, just go all in.

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